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Shira Lurie is a PhD candidate in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political conflicts over the American Revolution’s legacy in the early republic. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog.




Last year I reflected upon the first year of my PhD by relating it to the Potterverse. Although my acceptance letter to grad school didn’t come by owl, it still felt akin to an invitation into a new world. As I wrote last May, like Harry "I entered a fancy new school where I met gifted people who taught me things I had never even heard of before.” My first year felt like a whirlwind of excitement, new challenges, and Quidditch games.


But then came second year. Like Harry, my second year was a little bit darker, more isolating, and had a worse movie adaptation. Whispering to me like a Basilisk slithering through the walls was a monster I had heretofore underestimated: comps. Indeed, both beasts’ main power seemed to be that of petrification. Whenever I thought too long about comps I became virtually paralyzed with fear. Worrying about comps made my second year much more stressful and far less enjoyable than my first.


I also experienced the same frustrations with those around me as Harry did. I was surrounded by my own Dobbys, well-meaning upper-years who wanted to “save me” from the dangers of comps. They would offer cautionary tales of past exams gone wrong and encouragement to “study enough, but not too much.” While well-intentioned, all of this advice had the cumulative effect of stressing me out further. And I’m pretty sure at least one of them was stealing my mail.


Worse still were the Gilderoy Lockharts of the world. Profs who used comps as a means to stroke their own egos. With some, it felt as though the process was less about my intellectual journey and more about displaying their personal expertise to their colleagues. A backfiring memory charm would have been welcome.


But for all of these concerns and frustrations, second year turned out fine: I passed comps without sustaining a single Basilisk bite. Like Harry, I learned some useful lessons along the way:


“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” - Albus Dumbledore


After months of restless nights and stress-filled days, I decided that I had to choose to at least try to enjoy the process of comps or I would never make it. It was this shift in mindset, more than the countless hours I spent studying, that enabled me to stay relaxed and focused during the actual exams. I hope to apply this lesson to the dissertation phase of my degree, as well.


“Dobby has heard of your greatness, sir, but of your goodness, Dobby never knew.” - Dobby the House Elf


My friends showed me the value of goodness over greatness. Much more helpful than the unsolicited advice of so many senior grad students were the little things my friends did to lighten the load as comps grew nearer: messages of encouragement, offering to run errands, and celebrating with me every time I finished an exam. They focused on making the process as painless for me as possible, rather than using it as an opportunity to retell their past comps triumphs.  


“Fred and George, however, found all this very funny. They went out of their way to march ahead of Harry down the corridors, shouting, ‘Make way for the heir of Slytherin!’"


Nothing in grad school should ever be so dire that you can’t joke about it. Laughing about comps with those in my cohort made it seem less scary.


How was your comps process? Let us know in the comments! Anybody try writing in a cursed diary that slowly ate your soul?

[Image from Flickr user Russell Ede used under Creative Commons license]

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